Cory Doctorow

Electronic Frontier Foundation

All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites
16 minutes, 7.8mb, recorded 2005-03-15
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctrow explains how the Internet, like all complex systems, includes parasitic elements that make use of resources in ways never intended by their providers. Often such parasites are pitched as destructive, threats or just plain bugs but sometimes their very existence promotes innovation and creativity enabling the Internet to develop and evolve.

Starting with email, as an example, Cory compares how the NY Times can helpfully spoof your email addresses when you refer an article to a friend as can spammers in their unwanted mass mailings. While spammers could be foiled by using identity based techniques, doing so would break the service provided by the NY Times and many other beneficial parasites. Similarly the blind application of DRM to digital and audio media is promoted by some as the solution to file sharing and copyright infringement but at what cost? Is it worth fixing perceived bugs if the result costs us innovation, free speech, research and the publics rights in copyright?

This presentation questions the attempts by individuals, and industries, who should know better to fix the Internet by simplifying it so that only those that create value can profit from it. In such restricted environments innovation and evolution are smothered and resources spent defending artificial restrictions rather than extending the ecosystem. In complex systems, like the Internet, parasites are accepted for what they are. Negative parasites are the price we pay for the benefits of positive parasites and the freedom to innovate.

Cory finishes this session by encouraging us "Emerging Techers" to make our ideas real, even if they demand the kind of ecological diversity and bugs that many would have us reduce, and to remember that the Internet is not broken -- just complex.

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Cory Doctorow ( is European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (EFF) where he represents EFF's interests at various standards bodies and consortia including at the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization. Born in Canada, and now living in London Doctorow is a prolific writer who co-edits the popular weblog, Boing Boing and appears on the mastheads at Wired, Make, and Popular Science magazines. His science fiction novels have won the Campbell and Locus Awards and been nominated for the Nebula Award. In 2004 his his short story collection, "A Place So Foreign and Eight More" won Canada's Sunburst Award for best Science Fiction.


This presentation is one of aseries from the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference held in San Diego, California, March 14-17, 2005.

For Team ITC:

  • Description editor: Paul Power
  • Post-production audio engineer: Tom Parish

This free podcast is from our Emerging Technology Conference series.